More Than “Friendless” or “Fallen…” Giving Voice to the Women Who Misbehaved in History


I learned about the Home for Friendless Women while I was in graduate school, at an internship at the Filson Historical Society. I spent most of my time cataloguing various collections housed at the Filson, everything from parasols to swords. (An impressive collection of both, as I recall.) I also spent time helping the director of the museum unwrap and hang paintings that had previously been in storage.

One day, we unwrapped the portrait of a man who the director mentioned had been a benefactor of the “Home for Friendless Women.” Those words—friendless women—went through me like an electric charge. What did that even mean? I quickly discovered it meant that sometimes you are handed the subject of your next project and find yourself working on a historical novel set in the Victorian era about a faith-based charitable home.

I learned a lot about the Home from looking through the Filson’s archives. The home was not a place for nineteenth century adult women who lacked friends, as I briefly imagined. Friendless was once a common euphemism to refer to an unmarried, pregnant women. The Home was also called The Home for Fallen Women or the Refuge for Magdalens.

Friendless or fallen women had tumbled from society’s good graces (and their own precarious social standing) with their unplanned and often unwanted pregnancy. The word also implied something about their socioeconomic status—generally only poor women were friendless; wealthy families would have had more options to conceal an unwanted pregnancy.

Maternity homes like the Home for Friendless Women existed all across the country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Louisville Home was run by Protestant, middle-class white women. One goal of the Home was to help the pregnant women under their care gain respectability, through hard work and an embrace of Christianity.

Social crusaders during this time saw female sex workers as victims of male lust, and they believed that if a fallen woman learned morality, religion, and honest work in a safe place, she would be unlikely to return to her former occupation.

I was fascinated by the Home’s original record books, included in the Filson’s collections department. The Board members discussed everything from fundraising measures to brief descriptions of the pregnant women in the Home, often called inmates.

A number of women came to the Home from brothels, which isn’t surprising since in 1856, when the population of Louisville was around seventy thousand, there were seventy-nine reported houses of “ill fame.” Social crusaders during this time saw female sex workers as victims of male lust, and they believed that if a fallen woman learned morality, religion, and honest work in a safe place, she would be unlikely to return to her former occupation.

Religious activity, including prayer meetings and devotional exercises, along with lots of chores, was part of the women’s lives in the home. In the newspaper article “Home for the Friendless—Reports Show That Much Good Work Was Done Last Year,” the author claimed that the women in the Home “cheerfully and satisfactorily” completed their chores, laundering thousands of lace curtains, repairing over eight hundred garments, and making, by hand, close to one hundred quilts and comforters.

The same article also listed the religious activity of the house, reporting that the Evangelical Committee held “fifty Sunday services, and fifty prayer-meetings; forty-six religious meetings were held by women of the board. Two of the girls have become church members.”

When I first started researching the Home, most people had two questions: where was it located and what happened to the babies? Initially it seems there wasn’t a firm policy when it came to the children born in the Home. Some women took their children with them, others chose adoption; the newspaper reported on one woman who abandoned her child in the Home.

In 1887 the newspaper also reported that women were required to stay for one year; by 1894, women were required to stay eighteen months and were not to leave at all during these months, or they would forfeit their right to return. By 1894, the inmates also had to promise to take their child with them when they left.

In order to tell their stories, I had to use the tools of fiction to creatively reconstruct (and outright make up) their lives before their time in the Home.

After my internship, I wrote an article about the Home for Friendless Women for the Filson’s print magazine. Even in that article, which was focused on facts and research, it’s clear that what I really wanted to write about was the women in the Home. I was drawn to the women who had misbehaved enough to warrant a mention in the record books, the ones who used improper language or left the Home without permission.

It was my interest in these women, the headstrong, loudmouthed women who tested the Board’s patience, that helped me realize I had no intention of writing a nonfiction book about the Home. I didn’t want to be tightly yoked to the historical facts of the Home, especially since there were such large absences around the people I was most interested in.

It was clear that the Board members had seen the women under their care through a very narrow, very specific lens. In their minds, these women had sinned and that idea colored both their view and treatment of them.

But the inmates’ lives did not start and end with their time in the Home; for many, it was a temporary place, a purgatory to endure before embarking on the next chapter of their life. From reading between the lines of the record books, I imagined that many of the women did not see themselves as sinful or fallen.

Surely some understood the unfair social norms that blamed them for their own sexual assaults and unwanted pregnancies, while allowing their male perpetrators to face little, if any, consequences. In order to tell their stories, I had to use the tools of fiction to creatively reconstruct (and outright make up) their lives before their time in the Home.

As novelist Sarah Waters once said in an interview, “Lesbian historians might agonize over whether women in the past had sex with each other, but if I want my lesbians in the 1860s to have sex, then they just do….” I wanted the women to have rich, full, complex lives, both before and during their time in the Home, so I created a world where they did.

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A Home for Friendless Women by Kelly E. Hill is available via Vintage.



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